Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book Review: 2312

2312 (2012), Kim Stanley Robinson. Hardcover, 576 pages.

Summary: In the year 2312, humanity's diaspora into the far reaches of the solar system culminates in a period of turmoil and change in which planetary powers and evolving life-forms jockey for supremacy and for survival. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day.
     Maybe to say that someone was "like this" or "like that" was just an attempt to stick a memory to a board where you organized memories, like butterflies in a lepidopterist's collection. Not really the generalization it seemed, but just a stab at understanding. Was Wahram anything like what she might say about him, if she tried to say anything? He was like this, he was like that -- she didn't really know. One had the impressions of other people, nothing more. Never to hear them think, only to hear what they said; it was a drop in an ocean, a touch across the abyss. A hand holding your hand as you float in the black of space. It wasn't much. They couldn't really know each other very well. So they said he is like this, or she is like that, and called that the person. Presumed to make a judgement. It was such a guess. You would have to talk with someone for years to give the guess any kind of validity.
     When I'm with you, she said to Wahram in her mind as they floated there together, waiting, holding hands -- when I'm with you I feel faintly anxious; judged; inadequate. Not the kind of person you like, which I find offensive, and thus behave more like that part of me than ever. Though I want your good opinion too. But that desire I find irritating, and so contradict it in myself. Why should I care? You don't care.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 8/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10


Writing Quality: 7/10. Robinson is a very capable writer. As I wrote for my review of Red Mars, Robinson has an ability with poetic prose that far surpasses almost all science fiction writers out there. Having said that, the "beautiful phrasing" in this novel can sometimes feel hard to pick out of the more technical and jargon-filled prose that envelopes it. It sometimes feels as though Robinson struggles to choose between his poetic and encyclopedic impulses -- and not in the Melvillian sense that offers a portion of one and then a portion of another, in seemingly never-ending permutations and layers of meaning. Rather, Robinson often seems to combine a little of both as he writes, and while that sounds good in principle, I think the marriage frequently feels a little forced and a little confusing. Still, Robinson is head and shoulders above almost all authors I know of who mostly write science fiction. If you're someone who appreciates the craft of wordsmithing, there's no doubt you'll find things to like in Robinson's efforts. I feel like he's an essayist at heart, one who tries to twist his style into sci-fi novels, with varying degrees of success. As I write this, my stats page shows that Robinson is beat in this category by McCarthy, and matched by Ishiguro, but all of the other sci-fi authors I've reviewed fall below him. 

Depth of Concept: 8/10. I wavered between giving this category a 7 or an 8. In all that I have read from Robinson, he is always intelligent and usually nuanced (if obviously left-ward leaning) in his perspectives on philosophy, history, and social trajectories leading to futuristic speculation. I scored his novel Red Mars a 9 in this category, for the way it considered a single planet from a multitude of interesting and thought-provoking angles, even making me think of Melville's brilliant and exhaustive treatment of whales in Moby-Dick, or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. But while 2312 was certainly ambitious (extending its view out beyond just a single planet to include most of the prominent celestial bodies in the solar system), I never felt that its ambition was fully realized. Red Mars was fascinating in the way it made the red planet an engaging protagonist, but 2312 simply tried to cover too much territory to feel very richly focused in any one area. Robinson delves into some interesting but ultimately kind of tangential ideas of sexual and physical evolution, and gets a bit heavy-handed with some of his environmentalist inclinations. And there were portions that felt a little too much like he was preaching, akin to some of the more obnoxious moments in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Ultimately, an 8 is still pretty high, but I'd like to register my complaint that this novel simply was not as cohesive or layered with meaning as I felt Red Mars was.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. It was easier to follow narrative threads along in this novel than in Red Mars because perspectives mostly switched between two different main characters, and just a few minor ones. The characters were intelligent, and referenced Derrida and Beethoven and mostly had interesting views about life and about humanity's evolution. But I felt that sometimes the ruminations of the characters seemed a thin mask for Robinson's own thoughts and inflection, and I wished that the novel could have been more intimately focused on character development, and less on traveling so broadly and so frequently through the solar system on different errands. The novel started out strong in this category, but by the time it was halfway through, it felt that the whole task had perhaps gotten a little too big to spend too much time on mere character development. Nevertheless, Robinson still does this stuff better than most, and the excerpt above is a good indicator of the kind of smart stuff Robinson has going on with his characters. I'd be curious to read something by Robinson that was more of a character study than a survey of the cosmos, because the relationship aspect of the novel was good, but not as striking as other things he writes about. So many of his characters seem kind of adrift in purpose, and certainly too worldly or experienced to get too attached to others around them. Maybe that's just how Robinson sees the world, but it takes some of the fire out of his characters, and I wish there was a little more. 

Well-Developed World: 8/10. An 8 would be pretty great for most authors, but in comparison to Robinson's earlier Red Mars (I wonder how differently I would have read 2312 had it been my introduction to Kim Stanley Robinson?), it's definitely a downgrade. In widening his scope, Robinson also had to treat each different planet, moon, and asteroid with a lighter touch, and I don't think the sum of all of these aspects adds up to equal the massive, intricate story of an evocative fixture in our cosmology that we got in Red Mars. Is Robinson's vision still thought-provoking and well-developed? Yes. Are there great little moments? Yes. But has he done better? Definitely. Robinson spends a lot of time on a couple things that didn't seem to quite come together to make a tightly knit, rich "world": sexual and physical evolution and modification; class conflict on earth; tangential jaunts through a bunch of "worldlets" built within asteroids; discussions of terraforming and the political and social barriers to it; a romance as an afterthought; an intrigue as an afterthought. Any one of these could have been explored with greater depth and nuance, and formed a book all on its own. As it is, it feels a bit crudely and strangely stitched together, albeit thought-provoking.

Page Turner: 7/10. Robinson is perfectly capable of writing exciting moments, moments full of urgency and danger which at the same time demonstrate coalescing thematic threads. The thing is, Robinson doesn't seem to care about doing that sort of thing very often. This book (as with other books by Robinson) seems to be much more a work of art than a rip-roaring space adventure. I don't mean "work of art" in terms of it being a "masterpiece," although it is still very good, but rather in terms of Robinson's intentions. There are chapters full of stream-of-consciousness sentence fragments, and chapters about Beethoven, and chapters that loiter languidly over the physical geography of one planet or another. It's to Robinson's credit that I was still above-average engaged by the book, since there are so few scenes of action in it. But I did sometimes feel that I was reading more of a journal of personal musings than a tightly paced or crafted novel. Now that I think about scoring this a 7, which is respectable, I'm thinking that Red Mars actually should downgrade to a 6. Red Mars was the superior novel, in my opinion, but it was probably tougher to get through than 2312, in part because it didn't have clear protagonists the way 2312 does. Both, however, are still very big books. Robinson has never been accused of following Hemingway's "iceberg" model.

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10. 2312 is full of tangents and loose threads, many of which are stimulating and thought-provoking. I was probably less interested in Robinson's musings about sexuality and relationships than I was in his thought experiments with the way we might move out into the solar system, or with the poetic moments about landscapes on planets and asteroids of different kinds, or while floating in space holding onto another's space-suited hand (as in the excerpt). It was a little hit-or-miss for me, but even with 1/3 or 1/2 of things feeling a little contrived or a little preachy or a little too lightly treated, there was still a lot to keep me thinking. I'd say I was interested in lots of little moments, but not as interested on a grand scale as I was with Red Mars.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. I'd recommend just about anything Robinson writes, not because they're all masterpieces, but because they are always intelligent and provocative. The "science" in this novel is probably a little more far-out than what you'd find in Red Mars, but it's clear that Robinson still tries to extrapolate from reality, rather than just making stuff up to make a good story as we might see from Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game, or even The Hunger Games. Robinson is known to ruffle the feathers of conservative readers, but if you're willing to concede that a liberal environmentalist can still have valuable things to offer, this is a very good, if not great, way to spend some stimulating reading time. Also, bonus points to Robinson for working Andy Goldsworthy into the story.

Books To Compare:  I've compared Red Mars with Moby-Dick and Rushdie's Midnight's Children, in terms of scope and detail . . . but I think 2312 doesn't quite hit those notes for me. Rather than exhaustively treating a more narrow subject, 2312 is a little more of a survey of big issues and distantly connected spheres (and spheres of influence). It uses a single year in our future as a focusing point, so in that respect you might look to (admittedly contemporary and non-fiction) treatments of pivotal years in human history, such as 1066: The Year of the Conquest, or 1776, or 1959: The Year Everything Changed. For his environmentalism, you'd probably want to at least note Silent Spring as a predecessor, as well as a slew of contemporary books about climate change and population problems. In terms of classics, you might get a little mileage out of Gulliver's Travels, which also follows the wide-ranging journeys of a protagonist encountering exotic creatures in exotic places, though Robinson tends less satirical and more didactic in the way he treats contemporary social and political hot-button issues. Though Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a better crafted, tighter, more emotionally powerful novel, there are similar strains of trying to define moments of change, and the way individuals react to them. In terms of the protagonist's happy-go-lucky journey that crosses from one side of the known landscape to the other, and back again, On The Road might make an interesting comparison, though Robinson's intentions are very different. If you can't tell, this novel is much more than a simple hard sci-fi book -- it mish-mashes a lot of different concepts and styles together.

Check out 2312 on Amazon.


  1. I loved the Mars books, but that's all I've read by Robinson.

    1. This is a great one if you want to see the way Robinson treats some of the other celestial bodies...but it's not as good or visionary as the Mars books, I think.

  2. I've never heard of this author but this book sounds awesome!

    1. He's won a bunch of awards for science fiction, although his tendency towards being wordy and overtly liberal has turned off some readers. Still, he's one of the most intelligent and capable writers in the genre.